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Bridge Between Global Jewish and Buddhist Communities Marc Lieberman Dies Aged 72

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Marc Lieberman in Tsochen, Tibet, 2003. From nytimes.com

Dr Marc Lieberman (1949–2021), a pioneer in Jewish-Buddhist dialogue and a generous giver of sight to thousands of Tibetans, passed away at his home in San Francisco on 2 August. He was 72 years old. The cause of death was prostate cancer, according to his son.

An ophthalmologist by profession, Lieberman was an early proponent of the self-ascribed “JuBu” label, denoting his mixing of his Jewish faith with aspects of Buddhist theory and practice. “I’m a healthy mosaic of Judaism and Buddhism,” Dr. Lieberman said in an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 2006. “Is that fair to either religion? Fair schmair! It’s what I am.” (The New York Times)

His interest in Buddhism began in the 1980s, when his then-girlfriend Nancy Garfield—whom he married in 1986 and later divorced—introduced him to the Bay Area’s Buddhist community. After a retreat, Lieberman began to more fully commit his life to understanding and practicing Buddhism.

He soon became a pre-eminent member of the lay Buddhist community in the area, leading weekly meetings in his living room and hosting visiting monks from around the world. When the Dalai Lama’s 1989 trip to the US was planned, Lieberman was contacted, leading to discussion of Judaism.

Lieberman helped to facilitate a one-day meeting that year with the Dalai Lama and numerous rabbis and Jewish scholars at a temple in New Jersey. Despite lasting only a day, the meeting was hailed as a great success. The following year, Lieberman and eight of the rabbis and scholars traveled together to Dharamsala in northern India for a meeting at the Dalai Lama’s official residence. That meeting lasted four days, allowing the participants to go into much greater depth on a range of topics, from the origin of suffering to the meaning and role of mysticism in everyday life.

Accompanying the group was Rodger Kamenetz, a poet and long-time friend of Lieberman. Kamenetz was so moved by his time there that he wrote The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (HarperOne 1994). The book gained widespread popularity, driving many Jews and others from diverse religious traditions to explore adding Buddhist ideas and practices to their lives. For some, it meant turning to Buddhism fully, while for others it pointed to a more mystical version of their own faith.

Book cover for The Jew in the Lotus. From goodreads.com

“Marc really deserves credit for that dialogue, for opening Jews to their own meditative and esoteric traditions,” Kamenetz said in an interview. (The New York Times)

The conversations proved to be transformational to Lieberman in another way. In his talks with the Dalai Lama, he learned that the high altitude of the Tibetan Plateau was blanketed in ultraviolet light, made stronger by reflection in the long winter snows, leading a high proportion of Tibetans to develop cataracts. In 1995, Lieberman founded the Tibet Vision Project with the aim of returning regularly to help communities in Tibet to restore eyesight. Over a span of 20 years, he and his team helped some 5,000 people regain their sight.

“I remember him saying to the Dalai Lama: ‘When you come back to Tibet I want the Tibetan people to see you,’” Kamenetz recalled. (The New York Times)

Lieberman with an eye surgery patient in Tibet. From nytimes.com

In a 2007 interview, Lieberman reflected on his connection to the Tibetan people:

There was a general acknowledgment of the profound historical resonance of the plight of the Jewish people in the last 2,000 years—being in exile before recovering their homeland and the plight of the Tibetans who are in their first generation of exile. The Tibetans explicitly wanted to know what the Jews did to survive. From this, I realized that I could make a contribution by going to Tibet and teaching eye surgery to help reduce cataract blindness, which is the most common form of preventable blindness in the world, and that I would be able to do this as a Jewish-Buddhist ophthalmic surgeon. It seemed like a perfect fit. . . .  Somewhere along the line I must have gotten a tip from someone else working in the developing world that probably the easiest way to make a contribution is to keep going back to the same community until you’ve made your connections and have learned how to read the landscape. I have been doing that for the past 12 years. During two of those years, I started living in Tibet, so really I consider it a second home. (PBS)

Recently, Kamenetz paid one last visit to Lieberman at his home in San Francisco.

“We were really enjoying the flowering trees in San Francisco, just taking in each flower, each tree. Naturally we were talking about impermanence. And he said the most beautiful thing: that impermanence doesn’t just mean that everything goes away, but also that there’s always something new coming into focus. He said, ‘Whatever arises is the indispensable beautiful event that is arising.’” (The New York Times)

See more

Marc Lieberman, Who Brought Jews and Buddhists Together, Dies at 72 (The New York Times)
Interview With Dr. Marc Lieberman (PBS)
Dr Marc F Lieberman — July 7, 1949 – August 2, 2021 (Abhiyagiri)
Marc Lieberman (Legacy)
PROFILE: Marc Lieberman / Doctor gives Tibetans gift of sight / He’s working to end cataract blindness in their country (SFGATE)

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